I read with my friend, and she is the better half of our elite Book Club.
We are now reading our 123rd book together.
Emma Donaghue’s excellent collection of short stories, entitled Touchy Subjects. Emma is one of our most beloved, favorite authors.
The one before this, our 122nd book, was Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman.
She had read it, and taught it to many classrooms, before revisiting it with me.
For me, it was a first time experience. When we covered the book in high school, I guess I was absent that year! Or stoned!
Having now read it in complete middle-aged sobriety, I am amazed at how the book stays with me. While I am driving to work in the morning, all week, I find myself thinking about Willy Loman, and Biff… marvelling at what Miller created.
My friend is somewhat of a Miller expert, having read his autobiographical Timebends, as well as the more recent bio by Martin Gottfried.
In our discussions, she related some fascinating information concerning little-known Miller-trivia. And nothing fascinated me more than the following, regarding the fact that Miller’s first impulse upon conceiving the idea for the play, was to construct a building, wherein he would [in solitude] flesh out his ideas, and DO the writing of the story of Willy Loman.
She told me, and I quote:
So, Miller had only “the first two lines and a death” when he decided – he KNEW – that he would need to find a place to write other than where he was. He needed a room of his own, so to say, and he went to a place he owned – a remote wooded area (shades of Thoreau) – and --- started BUILDING a cabin there. Instead of writing the play, he threw himself into the building of that cabin. He had “no knowledge or experience” of construction, but strongly felt the need to do this before tackling the play. He says, “for reasons I still do not understand, it had to be my own hands that gave it form, on this ground, with a floor that I had made, upon which to sit to begin the risky expedition into myself.”
Wow…. I am all ears….
She goes on to explain:
“It’s all right. I came back” – Willy’s opening words – “rolled over and over” in Miller’s head all the time he was building the thing. “Further than that I dared not, would not, venture until I could sit in the completed studio….”
He says all that time he was “afraid I would never be able to penetrate past those first two lines.”
He started writing one morning… amid the smell of sawdust in this unpainted room… It was April, things just coming into bloom… and he wrote all day until dark, then had dinner and went back and wrote until sometime between midnight and four a.m.
He skipped scenes that he knew would come easy and that he could write in later…and went “for the parts that had to be muscled into position.”
By morning he had done the first of two acts.
It would take six weeks to write act two.
But when he lay down to sleep on that first morning, he realized he had been weeping.
When the play was finished, he sent it to Kazan [his director] for a reading. He sat by the phone for two days, waiting.
Finally on the end of the second silent day, he called. He said, “'I’ve read your play.' He sounded at a loss to give me the bad news. 'My God, it’s so sad.'”
“It’s supposed to be.”
“I just put it down. I don’t know what to say. My father. . . "
He broke off, the first of a great many men – and women – who would tell me that Willy was their father.”
********In many ways, Willy was MY father. [My dad was a salesman].
And in many ways, I am Biff, the son the father could never understand.
The son who could never understand his father.
My dad is gone now, as is Biff’s, in the play. Perhaps these above reasons are a part of why the story has resonated so deeply with me. But even as I think this, I know that the play’s power exceeds anything so subjective. Every thoughtful reader will see so much of LIFE, splayed out in Death Of A Salesman. And from a literary perspective, you will see genius.
I just want to encourage anyone who has not experienced Miller’s magnum opus to get it. Read it. You will be moved and shaken.
The man has poured so much of his soul into this work.
It cannot but speak to yours, in the reading.